At fifteen, I was walking home from town when I was catcalled by a number of creepy old men in vans. I was upset and humiliated, and spoke up on Facebook, trying to make sense of what had just happened. I was told that I was overreacting, it is not a big deal, I should take it as a compliment, ‘I wish people would still catcall me!’ I felt like I was crazy, why did I get so upset? This is totally normal, right? I was taught to expect it and accept it, and so I did.
But it is not just the cat call from a guy in a van when you are out with your friends at fifteen. It is the guy in the club who thinks it is okay to slap your bum and walk away. It is the guy who stops you on your way home and tells you to ‘fuck off’ when you are not interested. It is the guy who gets aggressive when you tell him no. The guy who comes over anyway after you tell him he can’t. These are the experiences that we face daily, and these are the experiences that contribute to rape culture.
A couple of months ago, I was out with a friend when a guy pulled me by my hair. Confused and taken aback, I just laughed it off. That was weird, right? That was not okay, my friend tells me. And no, it wasn’t okay. But I didn’t want to say anything, cause a fuss, ruin their night. I should expect it, and so I just let it go.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking home with a friend and we were stopped. ‘I’m sorry, but I just saw you, and -’ We’re busy, I tell them. ‘Are you serious? You didn’t even give me a chance!’ Of course, silly me, obviously I should be flattered that you saw me, and sure, I’ll give you a chance, I’ll stop to talk to a strange man on my way home from the pub, late at night, on Mile End Road. I owe it to you.
During fresher’s week, a guy put his arms around me and my friend and tried to physically drag us to join him and his friends, after his countless verbal invitations were declined. I tried, as politely as I could shrugging him off, ‘no, no thank you, have a nice night.’ But it took shoving him in his chest, with all my strength, to get the message across. He backed off, arms in the air, because of course, I was overreacting.
But we must start reacting. I’ve decided to stop giving them the old excuses like ‘I have a boyfriend,’ or ‘I like girls.’ The excuses you are taught to use before you understand that, actually, you can just say no. I’ve decided to stop letting these weird little incidents go, and instead, to call these guys out, when I feel it is safe to do so.
While it shouldn’t be up to us women to tell men that it is not okay to shout obscenities from their cars, or that, no you don’t get to squeeze my bum as I walk past, (you would expect it to be common sense, no?), maybe it does take speaking up about these experiences to make a point. The #MeToo campaign is spreading awareness about how frequent these assaults happen. Women are bravely sharing their experiences without any obligation to do so, and we should be applauding them.
Of course, catcalls are not as serious as what Harvey Weinstein has done. But these are the experiences that happen in your hometown at fifteen, the student union bar at eighteen, your bedroom at twenty. These are the experiences that teach girls to expect sexual assault, and to not know how to deal with the results when it happens. These are the experiences that teach boys that their behaviour is okay. These are the experiences that create men like Harvey Weinstein.
It is worth noting that when it comes to preventing sexual assault, it is always girls who are told to not dress too provocatively, not to get too drunk, to carry an alarm or pepper spray, learn self-defense. This advice only reinforces the idea that sexual assault is going to happen no matter what, all you can do is make sure it happens to some other girl, and not you. Why aren’t boys taught that girls are not sexual objects up for grabs? That being drunk or wearing a short skirt doesn’t mean she really wants you? That if she says no, maybe she says yes, or even if she doesn’t, who cares? Teaching men not to assault women shouldn’t be as difficult as it seems, but maybe that’s a conversation for another day. Right now, however, if we as women can come together and call out this behaviour, we will make a difference.
However, you may have experienced sexual assault, know that there is something we can do about it, and it shouldn’t ever happen again. We shouldn’t continue to accept it as a normal occurrence on a night out. It is nothing to do with what you wear, say or do. The men who perpetrate are the only ones to blame, and they need to be held accountable for their actions. Movements like #MeToo raise awareness of how widespread and broad sexual assault is, and unfortunately, it takes women having to share these experiences to make men realise what counts as inappropriate behaviour. Once we start taking interactions like catcalls more seriously, we can begin to make women and girls understand how much respect they not only deserve, but are entitled to.
Nobody should ever have to experience sexual assault, no matter how minor it may seem. Speak out, say no, tell that guy to fuck off. You are more than a bum to be groped, an arm to be grabbed, hair to pull. Once men realize that we know this, I hope they think twice before daring to try.